Aligning personal and company values

by Cynthia Schoeman

Values can be different for different people. These differences can also lead to inconsistences between employees’ personal values and the values of the organisation. Acting against this may appear to be curtailed by the fact that everyone enjoys the right to their personal values, a right supported by the bill of rights in the constitution. This personal right doesn’t, however, eliminate the organisation’s right to expect employees to conform to its values when, for example, an employee performs his/her duties. It also doesn’t prevent the organisation from taking action against those who contravene its values.

As to how this can be achieved, a positive approach would be to focus on what can be done to align employees’ personal values with the company’s values.

Recruit for the right values

While certain pre-employment integrity assessments deliver some value, for the most part these tests don’t achieve what they set out to do because the potential candidate would easily know the right – or most ethical – answer.

If, for instance, a recruiter offered the following four choices of when bribery would be acceptable, what would be the correct answer?

1 When the value of the business deal exceeds R1 million,

2 When it’s been approved by your line manager,

3 Never, or

4 When it has occurred previously in the company?

Clearly, 3 is the correct response.

Even when applicants are asked to consider more complex scenarios, they’re still likely to give the answer that they think the prospective employer wants to hear and that would secure them the job, rather than necessarily revealing their personal values.

Use training programmes to clarify and reinforce the company’s values

This is another approach, which is used to align values. With this methodology, the behaviours that are and aren’t acceptable in the workplace are highlighted.

For training to be effective, a trap that must be avoided is including material that focuses on employees’ personal values and ethics, for example:

  • Have you paid your traffic fines?
  • Have you inflated an insurance claim after a burglary or loss?
  • If you were given extra change, would you admit it?

While these situations lend themselves to discussions on ethics (or the lack of ethics), they aren’t suitable topics for two reasons:

1 They infringe on the employee’s right to exercise their values as they choose in their private capacity, and

2 The intrusion is likely to create a barrier to the employee’s further learning or engagement with the training material. The barrier would probably be expressed as “what I do in my private life is my business” or “you’re not my mother/father/… to tell me what to do in my private life”.

The counter argument that employees’ personal ethics are carried into the workplace is perfectly valid – but it still doesn’t warrant this intrusion into their private conduct.

When can you act against an employee’s unethical behaviour?

A helpful test as to when a company is entitled to intervene is to ask if you could formally act against the employee for such behaviour.

If, for example, you found out that one of your staff had stolen his/her neighbour’s cellphone, would you be entitled to start a disciplinary process at work? As much as the behaviour is unquestionably unethical, it doesn’t fall within the scope of the employer-employee relationship. This means that as the person’s boss, you wouldn’t be able to institute any disciplinary action, although you could – and should – report criminal activity to the appropriate authorities.

When employees’ personal behaviour isn’t acceptable

There is, however, an exception to the general position that employees are free to exercise their personal values outside the workplace.

For leaders and executives this doesn’t apply to the same extent. Their behaviour is generally so closely linked to the company and its reputation that inappropriate behaviour in their personal capacity would risk negatively impacting the company. While this exclusion could be viewed as eroding their right to privacy, in reality it’s simply the cost of occupying a high-profile position in an organisation. Their seniority and position as role models almost inevitably leads to them being held to a higher standard of conduct. The consequent challenge that leaders need to be aware of, and to manage, is the fact that those standards aren’t limited to office hours. Responsible leadership warrants that they conduct themselves ethically at all times.

The influence of divergent personal ethics on the organisation can be damaging. But the benefits of alignment are as noteworthy in the reverse. Values, therefore, necessitate attention. Building greater alignment between personal and company values should be treated as an important goal relative to all employees. There are many initiatives that would promote this, but the most effective route is to ensure that values constitute a real facet of the organisation and that leaders, at all levels in the organisation actively, visibly and consistently live the values.

This article first appeared on HR Pulse.

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